A Peek into 5th Grade Science

Students testing and timing racecars
In conversation with science teacher Alyssa
What is an essential question that 5th grade grappled with in the spring semester?
How do simple machines make life easier?
What is a project that the class engaged in to further explore this essential question?
Simple machines, like the lever or inclined plane, are deceptively boring inventions, and it can be difficult for students to conceptualize just how innovative they are. To begin the unit, students were asked to guess which simple machines they thought the Ancient Egyptians had at their disposal when building the pyramids. Students were shocked to find that the pyramids were most likely built without wheels, axles, or pulleys. They wanted to know why it was so hard to invent and perfect these machines. Rather than tasking students with memorizing the names and parts of each machine, they were introduced to each through a different engineering challenge. We began with the wheel and axle. The objective was simple: Create a car capable of driving down a straight, inclined plane. The constraints were that the design had to include at least two wheels and axles and that the materials needed to be purchased using a set budget. Because students could test and improve their design as many times as possible, students had to employ their best problem-solving skills. This was an incredibly fun and interesting project! Students had to overcome many challenges, including wiggly axles, tires accidentally hot-glued to the body of the car, and unaligned wheels. Many students thought outside of the box, selling back unused materials to lower their spending or adding an elastically powered element to their design. At the end of the class, each student got the opportunity to send their car down to ramp, and each design was unique.
What growth did you see in your students as they worked towards understanding of this essential question?
This unit highlighted the ways that 5th grade students have grown in their ability to persist in the face of challenges. Following the engineering-design process, students identified a problem, crafted a design, built that design, tested it, and improved it as needed. With each trial, students adjusted their original plan. This flexibility and grit marked substantive growth for all students. At the start of the year, students were frustrated easily by design problems; they looked for simple solutions to problems and expressed discouragement when those solutions weren’t found. [At the end of the year], students spent entire class periods designing something only to have it fail! And they take that failure in stride and learn from it. The success of this unit speaks to how much each 5th grader has grown in this past year.